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Isabella Peterson of James Madison.

2024 NCAA Lacrosse Preview: No. 8 James Madison (Women)

January 24, 2024
Justin Feil
John Strohsacker

The 2024 Division I women's college lacrosse season kicks off February 9. As is our annual tradition, we’re featuring every team ranked in the USA Lacrosse Preseason Top 20 in the lead up to opening day. Check back to each weekday this month for new previews, scouting reports and rival analysis. 


2023 Record: 19-3 (6-0, AAC)
Final Ranking (2023): No. 6
Head Coach: Shelley Klaes
Assistants: Kateri Linville, Colleen Shearer, Matt Snyder

James Madison is hoping it has enough to advance further after reaching the NCAA quarterfinals a year ago. The Dukes’ deepest advancement in the NCAA tournament since winning the 2018 national title followed a disappointing loss in their inaugural AAC championship game to Florida, whom they beat during a 17-game regular-season winning streak.

The conference loss has served since as motivation for a JMU team that is hungry for more.

“We’d love to be able to prove that we can be the team that can beat Florida in the regular season, and we need to do it in the championship game,” Klaes said. “That’s when it matters. I think our girls learned a lot from last year and have an opportunity to hopefully put those lessons to work this year and show that we can be better.”

JMU lost some program greats at the defensive end but only graduated one of their top five scorers and return versatile attacker Kacey Knobloch, who missed all of 2023. The Dukes have been able to recover from graduation losses before, and Klaes believes she has a blueprint for keeping JMU among the country’s best.

“This is my fifth time I’m having to redo the whole team,” Klaes said. “After the national championship, I think people thought we lost too much, and we eventually found ourselves back in the Elite Eight. I’m excited to see that work take place again.”


Isabella Peterson, A, Sr. (91G, 90DC)
Katelyn Morgan, A, Sr. (21G, 35A)
Maddie Epke, A, So. (45P, 72DC)

The Dukes only freshman starter a year ago and Virginia Sports Information Directors Rookie of the Year, Epke returns with more responsibility and higher expectations. JMU is looking for more goal scoring out of her this season to go with critical feeding.

“She helps at X, an area we’ve had a lot of gap in the last couple years,” Klaes said.

Epke’s greatest impact, though, could be in making up for the graduation of team leader Rachel Matey’s 91 draw controls. Epke gained more confidence in all her skills after a strong showing with the U.S. U20 training team at the USA Lacrosse Fall Classic in October.


Kacey Knobloch, A, Gr. (76G, 47A in career)
Ava Bleckley, D, Fr. (59G, 78DC, 24CT at Archbishop Carroll, Pa.)
Maddie Weybrecht, D, Fr. (aided Bayport-Blue Point’s first New York Class C title)

Knobloch’s return is a huge plus for the attack. The sixth-year senior and fourth-year captain brings unmatched experience. She was second on the team with 38 goals in 2022 before missing last year due to injury.

“She’s just going to be the glue of our offense this next year,” Klaes said. “She’s versatile. She can play anywhere.”

While Knobloch has changed roles throughout her career, the Dukes want to give her a spot this year and let her establish consistency there. Finding her a niche will maximize her productivity.


Graduations: Kat Buchanan, G; Lilly Boswell, M; Mairead Durkin, D; Lizzy Fox, M; Tai Jankowski, A; Rachel Matey, D
Transfers: Caitlin McElwee, A (Clemson)


Caitlin Boden, G, So. (.583 save percentage in 4 games)

Caitlin Boden got the nod in the fall for the goalie position vacated by the graduation of Kat Buchanan, who followed the legendary Molly Dougherty. The sophomore Boden makes really hard saves look easy and will have the chance to cement her spot this spring for a Dukes defense that ranked third nationally in 2023.

Freshman Emily Evans and junior Adanya Moyer will push for playing time at the critical position.

“It would be awesome to find our solution with one person, but with the lack of game experience, it’s an unknown,” Klaes said. “They have to prove themselves day after day.”


Though second-leading scorer Tai Jankowski’s graduation hurts, most of JMU’s losses came at the defensive end. Caused turnover record-setter Mairead Durkin, draw control leader Rachel Matey and goalie Kat Buchanan graduated, while expected returning defender Carolyn Thistlewaite is lost for the season with a knee injury. They also lost Caitlin McElwee to the transfer portal (Clemson) after her game-winner sent the Dukes into the NCAA quarterfinals.

Losing such big playmakers raises doubts about their chances to improve on last season.

“We’ve shown time over time over time that we can lose a lot and come back,” Klaes said. “I don’t disagree that we did lose a lot. I think our strength is in our ability to recover and develop our athletes that are chomping at the bit to get out there and redefine who we are.”

JMU should be more balanced on offense around Tewaaraton Award finalist Isabella Peterson. Katelyn Morgan will pick up Jankowski’s slack, and Kacey Knobloch’s return and the development of Maddie Epke leave the attack in good hands. If Maggie Clark and Taylor Marchetti can bolster the midfield play, that will take some pressure off the defensive rebuild as the Dukes sort out who to plug into the open roles their zone.

“We can adjust some of the things that we do within our system so we can still become a strong powerful defensive unit,” Klaes said. “We had done that with those players, now we just have to do it again.”


The James Madison schedule is a tough one, with their non-conference Strength of Schedule projected to be 7th nationally, indicating a deliberate approach to testing the team early on. Last year’s non-conference slate was the 13th toughest. Despite this, the overall Strength of Schedule sits at just 23rd, suggesting a lighter conference slate that could allow the Dukes to catch their breath after the early season gauntlet. It’ll be a U-shaped season for the Dukes, with a lull during conference season as they prepare for what they hope will be a deep postseason run.

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